Why You Can't Stop Stalking Your Ex on Social Media

Breakups are never easy, and thanks to social media, it has become harder than ever to let people go.

Seeing your ex doing anything but crying in front of daytime TV can be incredibly painful, so why is it so hard to stop stalking their profiles?

A lot of it comes down to chemicals in your brain.

Breakup on phone
Stock image of broken heart on two smartphone screens. Seeing photos of your ex is painful, so why do you keep going back? RyanKing999/Getty

What Happens in the Brain When We Are in Love?

Describing love in terms of chemical reactions is not very romantic. But while a breakup might leave you heartbroken, most of it is happening in your head. So what actually happens in the brain when we are in love?

"It depends on the theory of love you endorse," Brian D. Earp, a senior research fellow in moral psychology at the University of Oxford, England, told Newsweek. "On most philosophical accounts of love, it requires that the lovers fundamentally care about one another. They want to promote each other's flourishing for its own sake, without expecting specific benefits in return.

"Often, to maintain this kind of disposition toward someone, it requires a relatively healthy attachment bond, which is underwritten by various brain chemicals including serotonin and oxytocin, a neurohormone that is released through touch, hugging, kissing, orgasm, and so on," added Earp.

For some people, though, love is about something more primal. "Insofar as lust or libido is an important part of one's loving relationship, then chemicals like testosterone and estrogen–which regulate the sex drive, among many other bodily processes–will also be at play," Earp said.

"In any case, when we love someone, there is no doubt that our brain's reward system, of which dopamine is an important regulator, is activated by their presence, by shared experiences with them, or even just thinking about them."

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have also suggested that love can alter the structure of the areas in your brain involved in processing sensory and emotional information and reward.

Is Love an Addiction?

Whether love can be considered as an addiction depends very much on how you define "addiction."

"There are two main ways of thinking about addiction that some scholars have identified," Earp said.

"One is favored mostly by neuroscientists, who see addiction as a kind of relationship between a person and certain substances, where, among other things, these stimuli have 'hijacked' the brain's reward system, eliciting abnormal and dysfunctional processes that drive compulsive substance-seeking behavior, and cause withdrawal when the substance is unavailable.

"Another way of thinking about addiction that some philosophers favor is that it is broadly a kind of appetite–for any rewarding substance or behavior... that goes against a person's deeper goals or well-being, or that of others, and may become an issue for a wider range of substances or behaviors–anything from food to gambling to sex."

Brains in love
Stock image to illustrate the neuroscience of love. When we are in love, our brain releases feel-good hormones that create a natural high. libre de droit/Getty

The first definition could be used to describe a "love addiction," where the chemical high of attachment dictates the addictive behavior.

"One view of love addiction is that it is a kind of compulsive desire to attach to, and engage sexually with, a romantic object where this involves a disregulated reward system, where the craving to be with someone has 'hijacked' the brain, like certain drugs are thought to do," Earp said.

"If you accept a more 'scientific' account of love, which reduces it, controversially, to biological systems and psychobehavioral phenomena, and you consider cases where those systems and behaviors are chronically out of whack, harming oneself or others and feeling out of control, then 'love addiction' would be something like that."

Why Are Breakups so Painful?

If love really is an addiction, it is no wonder we find it so hard to let people go.

"There is quite a bit of work suggesting that going through a breakup, experiencing a romantic betrayal, or otherwise dealing with the sudden loss of an important attachment figure, can lead to feelings of pain and withdrawal that share many similarities with the withdrawal associated with stopping the use of certain chemical substances, both at the level of brain activity and in terms of subjective experience," Earp said.

Breakups are painful
Stock image of a woman eating a burger and french fries in bed after a breakup. Seeing photos of our ex-partner can induce real, physical pain. Zinkevych/Getty

One study from Columbia University found that, when participants looked at photos of a recent ex, the same centers in their brain lit up as when they were poked in the arm by a red-hot probe. The same thing did not happen when the same participants were asked to look at photos of their friends.

Why Can't You Stop Stalking Your Ex on Social Media?

While seeing photos of your ex might elicit real, physical pain, it can still be hard to resist the urge to study their social media forensically.

"There are a lot of reasons why we might feel tempted to dig for hints or signs of an ex-partner's activities, post-breakup," Earp said. "We might miss their presence and want a kind of substitute, a little taste of the old high we used to feel when they were with us, albeit laced with little stabs of pain."

A small study in 2010 found that, when recently single participants were shown photos of their ex, the same reward system activation was seen as when happily-in-love couples saw each other's photo.

In other words, you still get a rush of those feel-good hormones that make love so addictive when you see your partner, even though the thought of them now puts you through physical pain. It seems that seeing their face really is comparable to a destructive chemical high.

Christopher Carpenter, a professor in communication at Western Illinois University, told Newsweek that, no matter how tempting, stalking your ex is a bad idea. "Several studies suggest that stalking your ex on social media is associated with having trouble moving on and getting over the breakup," he said.

Man looking at ex on social media
Stock image of a man looking at photos of his ex on social media. Seeing their posts makes it harder to move on. Pheelings Media/Getty

"Interestingly, in my 2020 study with [Erin] Spottswood, we found that it didn't matter if you broke up with them or they broke up with you, it was still a bad idea to stay connected on social media.

"We also found that it was particularly hard to get over the ex if you see your ex interacting with people of the same gender as yourself that you don't know," Carpenter added.

Seeing these people for the first time on social media is, in many cases, even worse than meeting them in real life because of the nature of the content that people post on these platforms.

"You see only their best pics, and their comments are the ones they may have carefully chosen to be more clever and interesting than anything you used to say during the relationship," Carpenter said.

How to Get Over a Breakup

It is hard to resist the temptation to scour through your ex's Instagram, but Carpenter's advice is to avoid this self-destructive behavior.

"My go-to advice is to see them as little as possible on social media," he said. "So not only should you unfriend, unfollow, etc., you may want to mute any mutual friends such that you would see your ex's comments or posts."

Earp agreed that keeping tabs on your ex could be holding you back from moving on with your life.

"It really can help to block the person on social media, delete their number from your phone, and otherwise create physical, psychological, and emotional distance between yourself and them, or anything or anyone that reminds you of them," Earp said.

"You can also consciously remind yourself of the aspects of the relationship that were not healthy or that made the breakup necessary.

"Surround yourself with friends and family who have your back and let the slow wash of time do its thing."


References

Song H., et al., Love-related changes in the brain: a resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging study, Front Hum Neurosci. February 13 2015 doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00071

Kross E., et al., Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain, PNAS, February 22 2011, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1102693108

Fisher H.E., et al., Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love, J Neurophysiol, May 5 2010. doi: 10.1152/jn.00784.2009.

Spottswood E., Carpenter C., Facebook jealousy: a hyperperception perspective, Communication Quarterly, August 31 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/01463373.2020.1804959